One undeniable fact about Washington State is that it is endowed with spectacular natural beauty. No other place in America offers rainforests, volcanoes, glaciers, ancient trees, a wine-growing region, and one of the world’s coolest cities all within a couple of hours’ drive of each other. Between the Cascade Mountains and the San Juan Islands you can find just about any kind of environment you want, with the state loaded with outdoor recreation. As a bonus, the big city of Seattle is on the edge of it all for a solid dose of urban indulgence.
Washington State’s big city is Seattle, a beautiful metropolis with the Olympic Mountains rising in the distance across the waters of Puget Sound. It rains a lot here but when it doesn’t, this city is sheer magic. Pike Place Market is one of America’s coolest public markets, while the Space Needle’s observation platform dishes up panoramic views. Explore the trendy Ballard and Capital districts where the shopping, dining, and nightlife are all top shelf. Wander one of the many waterfront parks like Discovery Park or Seward Park, or hop on a ferry across Puget Sound just for fun. The Olympic Sculpture Park is another gem, as is the Seattle Aquarium and Seattle Art Museum. Rain or shine, this city is bursting at the seams with things to see and do. Address: Northwest Washington State Phone: n/a Website: http://www.visitseattle.org/Home.aspx
San Juan Islands
Just outside of Seattle is this cluster of lovely pastoral islands where killer whales roam and life moves at a slow pace. The San Juans sit in a rain shadow, so it rains much less here than in Seattle. Only four of the hundreds of islands are settled, with San Juan Island the most populous and Lopez or Orcas the most tranquil. All of the islands are rural and relaxing, especially outside of the peak summer tourism window. The quaint villages here are ideal bases for outdoor recreation like biking, sea kayaking, and whale watching. They’re also perfect for a romantic getaway, as ferries run constantly from downtown Seattle just across the bay. Address: Northwest Washington State Phone: n/a Website: http://www.visitsanjuans.com/
Olympic National Park
America’s only true rainforest can be found on the Olympic Peninsula in the extreme northwest corner of the state. Dripping with green rainforest hikes, white glaciers, wild hot springs, and broad rolling rivers, this peninsula is mostly protected within the national park. There are towns like Port Angeles along the coast for amenities, but the real magic is in the impossible towering forests or hikes in the Hoh River Valley or along isolated Ruby Beach. It’s very wet here, but good rain gear and a warm bed at night make this unique area of Washington well worth the effort. Address: 3002 Mount Angeles Road, Port Angeles, WA 98362 Phone: +1-360-565-3130 Website: http://www.nps.gov/olym/index.htm
On the eastern side of the Cascades, it’s a whole other scene where dry, high desert rules and a different range of crops grow. Towns like Walla Walla are great bases for driving around this pretty region which is known for its impressive wine scene. There are dozens of wineries to peruse as well as a handful of historic attractions like the Whitman Mission National Historic Site and Fort Walla Walla Museum. The town itself is very pleasant, with a relaxing downtown core filled with creative restaurants featuring the local produce and wines. Best of all, it doesn’t rain much here, making Walla Walla a good option if the western slopes start to feel too soggy. Address: Eastern Washington State Phone: n/a Website: http://www.wallawalla.org/
North Cascades National Park
The Cascade Mountains are a defining feature of Washington’s landscape. There are many ways to explore this volcanic region but the wildest and most adventurous part is protected in the North Cascades National Park. Hugging the Canadian border, this park is home to grizzly bears and gray wolves. There are little signs of humanity here, just ruggedly handsome peaks, 300 glacial valleys, and an insane amount of wildlife. Most of this park requires time and effort to truly appreciate. But there are some easily accessible entry points like the 23-mile Cascade River Road for a stunning alpine drive. Newhalem is even easier, with a nice visitor information center, ranger-led walks, and casual nature trails. Address: 810 State Route 20, Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284 Phone: +1-360-854-7200 Website: http://www.nps.gov/noca/index.htm
Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainer is that lovely snow-capped volcano which is visible from Seattle on a rare sunny day. The national park that surrounds it is a popular destination for mountaineering, skiing, hiking, and other recreation all year round. The summer window is brief, from July to September, and thus a bit crowded in the backcountry. But there are many access points, miles of trails, and scenic drives to work with. The Nisqually Entrance is the oldest entry point and home to a historic 1899 hotel. Paradise has the park’s main visitor center and is consequently the busiest area. Sunrise is also popular because it’s the highest place that can be reached by car. All five of the main entrances have nice visitor centers, amenities, and trails for casual hikes. Address: 55210 238th Avenue East, Ashford, WA 98304 Phone: +1-360-569-6575 Website: http://www.nps.gov/mora/index.htm
A little taste of Bavaria is available in the unique mountain town of Leavenworth. Tucked right into the heart of the Washington Cascades, this odd little village looks like it stepped right out of Bavaria. The architecture, shops, and even the people dress in traditional attire here to create a kitschy but neat scene. Leavenworth exists on tourism, but it’s one of the best bases possible for exploring this section of the Cascades. Besides strolling around the town, there are several wine tasting shops featuring locally-produced wines from eastern Washington. Address: Central Washington State Phone: n/a Website: http://www.leavenworth.org/modules/pages/index.php...